Don’t Sound It Out!

As proficient readers, we utilize a variety of strategies to make sense of what we read. For example, we visualize, we use our background knowledge, we look for patterns in words, we use the pictures, and in instances when we encounter an unknown word we use our phonics skills.

When parents read with their children and the child comes to a difficult word in the text, parents often prompt children to sound it out or use phonics. While well intentioned, this is not the best strategy to suggest.

First, when we prompt our kids to sound things out, we are implicitly telling them that this should be their go to strategy. So what will kids do when they are reading alone and can’t figure out a word? They’ll try to sound it out. Now imagine the word they are trying to read is one of the following: the, of, love, his, she, night, thigh, cry. That strategy won’t help them in these instances.

Also, when we prompt children to sound it out, we are saying that the sound of the letters/words is more important than the overall meaning of the story which is not true.
Therefore, the best strategy to prompt children to use is one that focuses on the overall meaning of the story. Try one of the following:

* Look at the picture.
* What would make sense?

Parents are often reluctant to let their child use the pictures in a text. I’ve had parents tell me that they cover up the pictures and make their child read without them. Pictures are a great source of information for children and contribute directly to the understanding of the text. Think about the books made for young children….they almost always contain pictures. Only when children are more proficient readers do we notice the pictures fading away such as in chapter books. The pictures help the child gain meaning from the text and children also learn that the pictures match what the words say. This will help them immensely when they begin writing on their own because they will realize that their stories must also match their pictures.

Once your child makes an attempt at determining the word using meaning, then you should ask them to cross check their guess by using phonics. You can say:

* Does that word look like the word you said?
* Get your mouth ready and try to say the word now and see if it works.

This is great because you are first asking them to think about the meaning of the story and then you are teaching them to always verify their answers with a second source of information…in this case, the letters and sounds. It’s ok to let them make a mistake too. If they make a guess about the word that makes sense but doesn’t match the word, see if they can figure it out on their own. If they are confused or frustrated, you can jump in to help but try to keep with the same thinking and say something like, “You chose a word that makes sense but it doesn’t match the letters so let’s try to think of something else that makes sense and starts like this word.”

For example, in the picture below, the child is pointing to the word “moth.” If they aren’t sure of the word, prompt them to look at the picture to help themselves. They may say “butterfly” which is ok because that would make sense! Then prompt them to say “butterfly” and ask them what letter that word might start with. They’ll probably surmise that it would start with “b,” therefore, they must revise their choice. You could then prompt them by saying, “What word would also make sense but start with an m?”


In this way you are enhancing their strategy system to assure that comprehension is the main focus of their reading. And that’s what it’s all about! We read to understand so you will be helping them learn the true purpose for reading.

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